For years, Ravinia has been struggling with the fact that audiences for Chicago Symphony Orchestra concerts are shrinking and has been drawing criticism for increasing its pop-music offerings.
Wolf Trap has a freer agenda: Rather than acting as the NSO’s official summer home a la Ravinia, it serves as the orchestra’s regular host.
“Wolf Trap invites us,” says Nigel Boon, the orchestra’s director of artistic planning. Where the Chicago Symphony offers 20 concerts a summer at Ravinia, the NSO has never offered more than a few each summer at Wolf Trap. This year’s series, officially known as “NSO@Wolf Trap,” involves 10 concerts.
And rather than bringing a taste of the NSO’s regular season to a wider public, these concerts deliberately reach out to the tastes of a non-classical audience: “Video Games Live,” “Disney in Concert.” It’s worth noting that some of the crossover projects, such as “Tan Dun: Martial Arts Trilogy” on Aug. 5, are arguably of more artistic interest than a classical chestnut like Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture” in its gazillionth iteration.
The programming, created in conjunction with the NSO and Wolf Trap, doesn’t show a lot of faith in classical music’s inherent appeal to a wider audience.
“The way I look at it, [it’s] for people like my parents,” says De Cou, “people who might go to one concert a year or two.”
He adds: “An honest American take on performing is making it open to everybody. . . . I will do anything, put on a chicken suit, if it gets an audience.”
The point is to expose people to the particular joys of live performance, rather than proselytize for future orchestra subscribers. De Cou notes that the informality of the outdoor setting allows the orchestra freedom to try new things, including tweeting program notes for Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Symphony a couple of years ago.
Wolf Trap has not abandoned its commitment to the high arts; it has just shifted it. According to Jones, there are four main “pillars” of Wolf Trap, one of which is the Filene Center, the 7,000-seat amphitheater where the summer performances take place. The other three are the Barns, the intimate 300-seat theater across Route 267 that offers a range of concerts during the regular season; the Wolf Trap Opera, a distinctive little company focused on giving experience to young artists at the beginning of their professional careers (its contribution to the 40th anniversary is a gala concert of successful alumni, including Lawrence Brownlee, Stephanie Blythe and Denyce Graves, on Aug. 24); and an education arm that includes a significant national initiative for early-childhood education, with 15 outposts across the country.